Lake Bonaparte, on the north western edge of the Adirondacks, has a human history known in its basic form to every school kid in the area; but the lake has some deep secrets ... to which I may be the only living witness.
The lake’s namesake, Joseph Bonaparte, was installed by his brother Napolean as king of Spain; but after a short and unpopular reign, was driven out by his reluctant subjects. He got away with the crown jewels though, and with enough gold to eventually buy a big enough swath of Adirondack wilderness to start his own country.
At the heart of Bonaparte country was a lake that, sight unseen, he named “Diana” after the goddess of the hunt. He built a residence twenty miles away in the hamlet of Natural Bridge, which was then little more than a convenient river crossing where the Indian River plunges into the ground and runs through caverns. The Bonaparte house was less than a hundred yards from where I lived until we moved down state. it was lined with sheet iron for security, and people have speculated that it had an underground escape route to the caverns, but the foundation and the basement were still there when I was living in Natural Bridge and I can attest that there was no tunnel out of the basement and anyway, the Natural Bridge Caverns, are no place anyone would want to escape to.
That house was his residence only while he constructed a railroad spur to the shore of the lake and built there a grand lodge he called The “Hermitage”, to which he bought many guests and furnishings, including a few gondolas.
Joseph found an American mistress and had a child by her, but he never found the fertile and tillable land he would need to sustain his estate, and after a few years he abandoned the territory to the Black Flies, Mosquitoes, Horse Flies, Deer Flies, and the invisible midges so small they could just about fly right through a silk stocking.
Left behind, his daughter Caroline eventually married one Zebulon Benton, who adopted a Napoleonic hat and kept his hand in his shirt when photographed. Benton somehow got a Swiss investor to back him in a scheme to build an iron smelter – a great stone pyramid – a mile or two down the Bonaparte outlet. Iron ore was to be brought there for smelting and the pig iron hauled away forty miles by ox cart over roads he had to build. He built the town for his workers too, , and he called it “ Alpine”, despite the absence of any visible mountains. The building of the little town itself provided more work than the short period of its iron smelting ever did. My mother remembered when some of the buildings were standing. Now the foundation walls are spilled, the cellars only dents in the second growth forest floor, the smelter mounted by Birch and Aspen, looking like an Aztec ruin.
Joseph Bonaparte’s Hermitage burnt many years ago and so did the Hermitage hotel which succeeded it; but maybe a gondola rests intact somewhere on the bottom of the lake, or drifts in swirling currents deep off Bullock Point.
Of ourse, after Joseph was gone, everyone called his lake “Lake Bonaparte,” rather than “Diana”.
I don’t know what Indians called the lake, but the Algonquins and the Iroquois who drove them out were here only for their hunting seasons.
As a ten year old, scuffling idly with my shoe as I sat on the doorstep of our Bonaparte camp, I turned up a flint spear point. More recently a backhoe working near the outlet of the lake turned up a set of bones from an ancient burial, which shows that though people may never have lived here permanently, they have been dying here for a long time.
Since we used to leave Lake Bonaparte when summer ended and return again when the next summer began, as a child I never saw the lake frozen over, never walked on it, heard it groan, or watched the ice break up and sink to the bottom in the spring. For me, it was always summer at Bonaparte.
Deep in the lake where the ice sinks to, there are no seasons, and
all time is a
To me the child, “Bonaparte” suggested “bones apart.” , even after I was told about the fugitive king who had tried to settle here. I often though of my Grandfather’s friend Ernie Thomas, one of the few people actually bon at Alpine, who, years before I was born, fell through the ice and his bones are still down there.
In the nineteen twenties, for five hundred dollars, my grandfather Bert Failing brought an island near the north shore of Bonaparte from a logger who owned much of this part of the lake then. We call it “Loon Island”, but naturally most everybody else calls it “Failing’s Island”.
Loon Island was only a peninsula when the aboriginal hunter lost his spear point there, but it was made an island by the dam Zeb Benton built at the outlet to power his sawmill.
. Loon Island Camp was framed mostly by Ernie Thomas and his son Harlan, with a monumental fireplace of stones carried from the lake shore and few from Alpine foundations and from the abandoned mica mine behind Round Island.
The building was intended as a hunting and fishing camp Within a few years the mantel-piece had as stuffed Pheasant, a Wood Duck, and a Snowy Owl that a farmer had shot as it perched his barn and then brought to my great grandfathers medical office to finish dying. Covering the stove pipe hole left over the mantel for winter hunting hook-ups of a box-stove, was a six foot set of Longhorn Steer horns that my grandfather brought back from a train trip to Texas. The battered furniture and implements from two generations of older camps made the the place old, even when it was new.
A pump house, a boathouse, and an ice house went up in the next few years. By 1943, when I was born, there already were too many of us for that camp, so my grandparents built another cottage back off the bluff nearer the middle of the island; later a log sleeping cabin, a boathouse, a gazebo, and a bathhouse.
Grandfather Failing, who practiced every profession going in Lewis County, outside of mortuary science, medicine, and mink ranching , retired at the age of fifty-two so that he could fish. Fishing to him was not sitting and drifting and dreaming, but a dead serious, and often hopeless, pursuit.
Though most of the other lakes and ponds in the area are red and acidic from the tannic swamps, Lake Bonaparte is essentially a big, clear spring hole, fed and enriched mostly by springs issuing from limestone. In Joseph’s and in great grandfather Drury’s time it was Lake Trout and Whitefish water, but since then its population has changed … and it is mostly we who have changed it.
The lake originally had been populated by a stranded species of Char, which evolved into the lake trout now found in some northern lakes. Northern Pike, Smallmouth Bass, Whitefish, Bullheads and Ling (only one of which I ever saw, floating dead in the middle of the lake) may have been native to the lake when the aboriginals fished here. The Lake Trout was the fish of my great grandfather, the Walleyed Pike the fish of my grandfather. I saw my last Bonaparte Walleye when I was snorkeling off our island, and now it is the largemouth Bass which provides most of game fishing, though the Northern Pike are doing well living off the Rock Bass and Sunfish that my grandfather introduced for the kids to catch. The state stocks the lake with trout, but the trout are dependent on the stocking program, to survive all the predatory species.
Since World War One the old Pine Camp military reservation wilderness bordering the west shore of the lake had morphed into Fort Drum, the heart of which is the impact zone for heavy artillery practice. The impact was at times loud enough that it rattled our windows and made the old train bell on top of the camp resonate. Then people used to complain that the artillery kept the fish from biting.
By the time he was eighty years old, my grandfather was walleyed with cataracts. But he had learned to walk the island by feeling the path with his feet, and using a flashlight intensified by reflective paint on the the tree trunks. The lake itself, he knew by heart.
He fished mostly at night, hoping the fish might be active when the artillery was asleep, hoping against possibility, as if it were the ancestral Red Char that he sought.
One morning my brother Herb told me that the night before, my grandfather had hooked and brought to the boat a Walleye as big as a log: a monster that got off because the landing net was too small.
For days, my grandfather was as grim and silent as if the bottom had drained out of the lake.
Less than a week after he had lost the grandfather Walleye, I was searching the flotsam of our beach for baby snapping turtles disguised as rotting leaves. I liked to take one home each fall for the aquarium, although they always escaped the aquarium and often disappeared forever in the house, except for one we found mummified under a radiator thirty years after its escape.
I found no turtles that day, but in the scrim of leaves, lake weed, and twig ends, was my grandfather’s briar pipe ... startling me as if it were a part of him lying there.
It must have fallen out of his pocket during his struggle with the Walleye. I picked it up and ran up onto the island with it.
Grandfather was sitting on his porch, still brooding over the lake. He accepted the pipe without saying anything.
He stared at it for a moment then closed it in his hand and examined me with the pearls that were his eyes.
Still, he said nothing, and I backed away; but I think it was then that he decided to share his secret. I was the one he had taught stillness, patience, and quietude. I was the one who would inherit his fishing tackle, if not also his desperate mission.
“Come on Davey,” he said one day after dinner. “Get your hat and bug shirt on; it’s time you and
me do some special fishing,”
It wasn’t just fishing,
it wasn’t really fishing at all.
We went straight to the open lake where we never fished because there was no shoal or weed bed. My grandfather took his bearings on some landmarks then lowered the grapple type anchor twenty or thirty feet down while telling me to get in the middle of the boat and row in slow circles.
I didn’t make many circles before he grunted and began hauling, eventually bringing aboard a rope tied to the handle of a. glass jug. He shipped the anchor, left the jug to float on the surface, and then hauled some more, as I stared into the depths and a cage began to appear: a wire cage like the ones he made for fish-traps, but this was larger, and those vague objects in it were not fish.
Amber colored bodies, human shaped, some without a few or any limbs, and some limbs without bodies, hard and pale amber like old glycerine soap.
They were small as children or dwarf peoples, and nothing remained of hair or clothing, victims maybe of a battle on the ice, or they might have been systematic deep lake burials by a vanished culture that knew of the cold, whirling currents with the power to transubstantiate flesh into essential soap - currents grandfather discovered when he snagged his first gyring while trolling where few or none had bothered to fish before. He had accumulated half a dozen complete bodies over the years, plus the occasional arm or leg, and a recognizable dog.
I was fascinated, and no more frightened or repelled than by any fossil.
So now that I had witnessed his dubious treasure, Grandfather opened the cage door and freed the Soap People, telling me, “Now Davey, say nothing to anyone about this.”
We didn’t even speak to one another about the Soap People after that.
I frequently dreamed of them gyring in the deep of my sleep, but our silence on the subject was so complete that sometimes, especially in later years when I no longer even dreamed of them, I wondered if it was only in my dreams that the Soap People had existed.
That fall my grandfather closed camp by himself after the rest of us had left. Still tough as leather at his age, he hauled the boats out of the water and carried the outboard motors to the pump house, then he went to Florida where he and my grandmother wintered each year.
But he may have known already of the cancer developing in his spine, and which kept him from returning the next season, or ever again.
When I was in my early thirties and beginning to wonder about my memories, I canoed to approximately that same spot near the middle of the lake, a location he had triangulated using shore markers I didn’t know and and that probably no longer existed … and there I rowed in slow circles for at least half an hour, grappling with the same anchor Grandfather had used, but got nothing.
The Soap People may have dissolved in the more acid water of these days. Maybe the remnants washed up on our beach, looking like the chunks of soap we used to bring down there to wash the dog or own hair. Maybe we brushed the sand off a few and set them on the raft until we used them up. Some things, we will never know.